Media misreporting in the thirties and today

Children struggle to dig through the frozen earth for potatoes. Udachny, Ukraine. 1933. Image: Wikipedia Commons

JVL Introduction

The Ukraine famine of 1932/33, or ‘Holodomor’, killed almost four million people, the consequence of decisions by Joseph Stalin.

On the face of it, this has nothing to do with our concerns about the current wave of defamation against the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn.

Look a little closer!

Jonathan Coulter finds interesting parallels in the way the mainstream media grossly misreported both cases.

He concludes that media reform is now a top priority, and should be a rallying point for those of the centre and left who seek to take the country forward in the next decade or two.

This article was originally published by Mondoweiss on Fri 24 Apr 2020. Read the original here.

What the misreporting of the Ukraine famine in the 1930s tells us about the press today

Seeing the film “Mr. Jones” set me reading several books on the Ukraine famine of 1932/33, the so-called Holodomor, that killed almost four million people.  The books were written by Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder and Dr. Margaret Siriol Colley, the niece of the real-life protagonist, Gareth Jones, who visited the Ukraine and revealed the famine.

The deaths were the result of Stalin’s policies, notably the collectivization of agriculture, the destruction of the so-called kulak class of family farmers, the forced requisitioning of surplus grain to feed an expanding urban working-class population and for export, and the deliberate suppression of the autonomous Ukrainian identity, which Stalin irrationally saw as a door to foreign invasion.   He pursued these policies relentlessly, overriding all objections and in the knowledge of the consequences, so we may reasonably describe them as genocide.The West’s reaction to Jones’s revelations reflects poorly on the 1930s mainstream media.  Fellow journalists and newspapers worked to discredit him, and his findings were hardly talked about for many years, only coming fully to light after the independence of Ukraine in 1989.

Gareth Jones, legendary Welsh journalist who exposed Ukraine famine at age 27 and died in 1935 at age 30 in Mongolia. Photo: WalesOnline

There were various causes, including sympathy for the Soviet experiment among western journalists, intellectuals and left/liberal politicians.  This was the case with George Bernard Shaw, David Lloyd George (who had employed the young Jones after he graduated from Cambridge) and journalists Walter Duranty and Louis Fischer.  This was of course the decade when the Soviets were making spies of other Cambridge graduates like Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess.

The Soviets ruthlessly manipulated foreign journalists, controlling their accreditation and ability to travel within the country, requiring them to obtain permission to file their articles and expelling those who did not comply.  The leading journalist resident in Moscow was the British-born New York Times correspondent and Pulitzer prize-winner, Walter Duranty.   In practice, he was a Soviet stooge who used his international prestige to rubbish the young Jones’s findings and play down the famine.  Worse still, the rest of the Moscow international press corps did a deal with the Soviet Censor that let Duranty’s untruthful version go unchallenged.

Walter Duranty, New York Times reporter

In addition, the leading Western powers did not wish to make an issue of the famine.  President Roosevelt was most concerned with the problems of American workers caught up in the Great Depression, and welcomed closer relations with the Soviet Union.  The Soviets were seeking American recognition, and when they achieved this in November 1933, Duranty was fêted for his contribution.   Meanwhile, British and French Governments were beginning to see the Soviet Union as a potential counterweight to Nazi Germany.

Misreporting in the 21st century

Taking the case of the UK, has journalism improved over the last 87 years? The 1930s were disconcerting and scary times, and a difficult call for those working in that profession.  WW1 and the Russian Revolution were recent events, while the Great Depression, mass unemployment and rising fascism hung over the present like a large cloud.

In comparison, the sun has shone on journalists born after WW2.  They (and we) have enjoyed 75 years without world wars, with rising living standards and vastly improved education.  Surely journalists of the early 21st Century could do more to resist the manipulative realpolitik and resulting propaganda.  Two key examples suggest significant failure in this regard:

  • The Observer’s support for the invasion of Iraq based on evidence that linked the 9/11 bombers to the Iraqi regime, about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda.
  • A tsunami of media stories about antisemitism in the Labour Party over the four years leading up to the December 2019 general election.

The Observer’s reports turned out to be disinformation from (mainly American) security services, Iraqi defectors and Tony Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell (see Chapter 9 of Flat-Earth News, by Nick Davies, 2008).  Indeed, the newspaper was ignoring CIA reports that Saddam Hussein lacked weapons of mass destruction, and conveying skepticism about the defectors.   There can be no doubt that the support of a respected left-liberal newspaper made it easier for Tony Blair to join President Bush in the coalition of the willing.

The Observer eventually obtained and published a memo leaked by the Government Communications Headquarters official Katharine Gunn, showing there was a dirty tricks operation, to spy upon and blackmail members of the UN Security Council into authorizing the invasion.  However, this happened very late in the day, did not change the Observer’s editorial line and failed to stop the invasion on 20th March 2003.  Keira Knightley later portrayed Gunn’s role in the film Official Secrets.

In the second case, a group of eight national newspapers published 5,497 articles about antisemitism in Labour between 15 June 2016 and 31 March 2019 (see here), while the Guardian alone published such 1,215 over a similar period, about one a day, according to data from the Factiva database.   Almost all these stories relied on anecdotal evidence from people attacking Labour, including the Jewish Board of Deputies that described the Labour Party as a cesspit of antisemitism, but ignored hard statistical evidence to the contrary, cited here and here.  To top it all, the entire mainstream media failed to review the book “Bad News for Labour” where five seasoned researchers investigated the topic in depth and reached very different conclusions.

In this case, the mainstream media systematically failed to deal with evidence that did not fit the dominant narrative,  thereby exposing a deep flaw in Britain’s democracy.  This was worse than in the Holodomor case, where Jones managed to publish an initial clutch of articles before Duranty’s intervention could have its full chilling effect.

As in the Holodomor case, we see the same underlying factors diminishing the media as a force for good.  State actors worked to ensure events were reported as they wished, with the assistance of sympathisers with contemporary political doctrines; Zionism figures in the second case much as communism was a compelling cause in the 30s.  We again see what one might call weak flesh, i.e. Duranty-style journalists seeking personal advantage, and/or taking the path of least resistance.

It is time we did better

As we saw in the Iraq case, journalistic errors come at a very high price, so there is a crying need for effective reform and regulation.  Both Labour and Liberal Democrats, and some conservative rebels like Kenneth Clarke, have steadfastly supported the regulatory reforms proposed by Justice Brian Leveson, which would enable the public to hold the press accountable for gross inaccuracies.

This risks being forgotten with the current concern over Brexit, coronavirus and other topics, and in the face of the current Government’s parliamentary majority.  The news media are the very lungs of a healthy, environmentally-sensitive and peace-loving democracy, so we should treat its reform as a top priority, and make it a rallying point for those of the centre and the left who seek to  take this country forward within the next decade or two.

P.S. I have slightly changed the article’s wording as regards the Observer’s actions immediately prior to the Iraq War, and the impact of the media narrative about the Labour Party on British democracy, but neither change affects the overall message and conclusions.  Thanks to Adam Waterhouse for his comments.

Comments (10)

  • Doug says:

    Press and media reform
    Announce it now, campaign for a Free Press and a level playing field, democracy is the least worst option but has to be defended
    Reform voting system, campaign finance and give Electoral Commission powers to intervene and prosecute parties who abuse process

  • Benny Ross says:

    Thank you for an illuminating and pertinent article. But I would question the wording of this bit: “the mainstream media systematically failed to deal with evidence that did not fit [their] narrative ” -true; “This was worse than in the Holodomor case” — well, yes and no. The level of media bias and lying unanimity may have been greater in 2019, but the scale of the famine in Ukraine makes it difficult to say it was “worse” without appearing to get things out of proportion. As bad and frustrating as the election defeat was, it doesn’t really compare with mass starvation.

  • Charlie says:

    What the left has learnt about the complicity of the press in promoting approved narratives makes me wonder why so many people are willing to accept these around the threat of Covid-19 and the measures taken to contain it, wherein the latter quite clearly outweigh the former in terms of human cost, certainly over the longer term but probably also right now. In this case the difference is maybe that we’ve been duped into pseudo-protest about adequate PPE and testing of NHS workers when the real question is which of the abundance of measures described by the umbrella term lockdown are actually effective, and which only or predominantly cause harm. Hopes of reforming the media or anything else will amount to nothing if we can’t resist this relentless imposition of fear and recover our ability to think critically. The controversy over the war in Iraq is instructive: a whole soap opera about whether there were weapons of mass destruction that would justify the invasion, when surely the important question was: if we can have them, why can’t they? Outcome: millions killed and displaced, havoc across an entire region, and still no end in sight.

  • Charlie says:

    Which reminds me of the best answer I heard to the WMD question: “Because all our oil is underneath their sand.”

  • Phil says:

    Gareth Jones decried the likes of foolish socialists such as George Bernard Shaw and Sydney and Beatrice Webb who allowed themselves to “lead by the nose”, conned by their hosts into thinking the 1930’s USSR was a paradise. Jones was an honest liberal who went out of his way to find the truth, not to see what he wanted to see, or what others wanted him to. What shocks today is the number of people on the left still willing too give China the benefit of the doubt, as if there was something remotely socialist about the country worthy of defence. Wake up! Any hope of socialism died in the Cultural Revolution. In fact China, in any traditional, civilised sense, died in the Cultural Revolution. What is left is an aberration of a nation. If you want to know what China could and should have been like today, had it had a more ‘natural’ historical experience, go to Taiwan. There, Chinese, confucian civilisation continued, and continues, untraumatised by the insanity of that perverted warlord Mao Zedong. Had Chiang, and not Mao, triumphed in 1949, China would today no doubt be a civilised and sane member of the human family of nations. Instead we have a quarter of the world’s population cynically brainwashed for 70 years, and brainwashed with a frightening success almost beyond belief; 2 nations, Tibet and East Turkestan/ Xinjiang destroyed by a ruthless cultural genocide and, running the whole show, a fascistic state machine whose national impetus is fired largely by a desire for revenge for its 19/20 century humiliation by Japan and the West. My UK secondary school history books had one short, undetailed paragraph about the Opium Wars; in China, children spend at least a year of their history syllabus studying this period. We drained China’s coffers of silver by selling them top notch Bengal opium, and then hung signs on the parks saying ‘ No dogs or Chinese allowed’. We have forgotten; they have not. They are now draining our coffers by selling us bottom notch plastic that doesn’t even get you high. And soon China will be buying up all our Covid bankrupt businesses at knock down prices. Yes, they will. They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. Anyone out there know if there’s a gazpacho version of Bat Soup? Hong Kong young have so accurately renamed ‘China’ as ‘Chinazi’. It is so much its true name now we should all be using it instead of the misleading ‘China’. China is not China anymore. It may be at a different stage on its journey of racist crime, but make absolutely no mistake there is very little difference between Hitler’s Germany and Xi’s China today. There already over a million totally innocent Uighurs in concentration camps, many of them being used as slave labour, producing goods sold in the West. China’s holocaust is just beginning. And in the long run, we may find that Xi’s brainwashed nation, unchecked, causes far more horror than defeated Hitler’s. When climate change really hits the fan, don’t be surprised to find the Chinese the last ones standing. China’s entire national programme is, and always have been, very long term and is underpinned by an awareness of that potential scenario. Watch out world. That’s the opinion I’ve formed having spent 5 long years of my life there, with fluent Mandarin to boot. And lastly, for almighty Hendrix’s sake, do not let Huawei (aka the Chinese government) anywhere remotely near our infrastructure! That would be just insane…

  • Diamond Versi says:

    This reminds me of the poor Indians starving in India during the British Raj because Churchill decreed forced importation of rice from India to the UK.
    Churchill has been quoted as blaming the famine on the fact Indians were “breeding like rabbits”, and asking how, if the shortages were so bad, Mahatma Gandhi was still alive. Disgusting comment!

  • Phil says:

    It should be noted that, although Jones was clearly motivated by a humanitarian desire to investigate the famine in Ukraine, his ability to do so was facilitated by the German diplomatic corps in the USSR. It was only through an invitation by the consulate in Kharkiv that he was allowed to avoid the then ban on foreign journalists leaving Moscow. Why were they so keen to help a foreign journalist? Was Germany’s interest in exposing the famine really as humanitarian as Jones’? Or did they have ulterior motives? The concept of lebensraum long preceded the Nazis and would have been familiar to non-Nazi diplomats, as some of those still in place in Ukraine were. It was central to Hitler’s plans and, as Tim Snyder pointed out in his 2017 Bundestag speech… “The purpose of the Second World War, from Hitler’s point of view, was the conquest of Ukraine”. The ideological basis for this was that today’s Ukraine had once been ‘Oium’, home to the Ostrogoths, before they were displaced by Slavs. The taking of Ukraine would therefore be justified as historical restoration and Hitler’s plans to do so, as alluded to in Mein Kampf, long preceded 1933. By its invitation to a British journalist, was the consulate in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s then capital, helping prepare the ground of popular opinion for what would come almost a decade later? Were they preparing Germany’s pretext? The grimmest evidence of starvation that Jones came across was not what he witnessed on his walk through the Ukrainian countryside, but in the form of letters from German Mennonite colonists in the Ukraine. These came into his possession from German sources in the May, following his March 1933 expose, on a return trip to Danzig. One of the letters states… “Seeing as we are in a terrible situation and cannot expect any help from anyone, we are forced to turn to Germany to seek assistance for us”. And, just as they mobilized to assist ‘distressed’ Germans in the Sudetanland, sure enough, 8 years later, German assistance did arrive in Ukraine (arriving to a population so brutalized by famine and death that they remained largely indifferent to Nazi atrocities such as the mass execution of Jews in Babi Yar). Gareth Jones was of course absolutely right to expose the Soviet famine despite any unintended consequences, and Walter Duranty and others wrong to deny it. But when we single out Walter Duranty for criticism we should, as we can see from the legions of British journalists who knowingly colluded in the smearing of Corbyn, recognise that his malevolent spirit, shamefully, lives on in pretty much every newspaper in the UK. The British press should also be picked up for largely failing to recognise the film Mr Jones as a Ukrainian propaganda piece which, whilst claiming to be a true story, sacrifices the true story of Gareth Jones in the interests of its spat with Russia. Were they perhaps dazzled into sloppy reporting by the rare brilliance of such an honest journalist?

  • RC says:

    Expecting the capitalist state to ensure fair play between capitalist parties and a party of the working class is utopian. The sanctions proposed in Leveson 2 would impose the risk of damages enough to destroy any nonconforming paper, and to what end? to give us the hope – and the burden – of badgering the capitalist press to admit its ‘mistakes’ – or rather, withdraw its slanders and reactionary propaganda.
    Second and Third International parties long ran their own newspapers and reviews, together with a range other cultural activities. Why defend our views and policies in a hostile arena (encouraging our spokespersons to grovel to the capitalist establishment/s in the name of ‘professionalism’) when we could go on the attack in our own media?

  • Tony Dennis says:

    Reading the first piece by ‘Phil’ above, the obvious question for me is why this has been allowed to appear on the JVL website. It reminds me of the Mail or Torygraph at their most vicious, or maybe of one of the more rabid US publications or websites.
    There are plenty of things wrong with Xi’s China which need to be exposed and debated by those of us on the Left. What we don’t need are racist generalisations about ‘a brainwashed population’, nor puff pieces for an imagined alternative China under the leadership of the benevolent Chiang Kai Shek and his cabal of landlords and generals.
    Hysteria about a ‘brainwashed population ‘ is reminiscent of the more fevered offerings of the political Right about the Soviet Union during the worst period of the Cold War. The effect, and in many cases the intentions, of such diatribes, were to provide a rationale for increased armament spending, to the great benefit and profitability of arms-manufacturing companies. Much of the bile currently directed at China, especially in the USA, has the same effect and intention. We don’t need this latest version of Yellow Peril paranoia (the fiendish Chinese, and their ambitions for world conquest) on this site, I’d have thought.

  • Johnny Essex says:

    [Thanks for the clarifications – JVL web]

    JVL links to the original article on mondoweiss and that article shows an image of starvation during the so called Holomodor. It’s not picture of the 1933 famine. This is an image of a previous famine and can be seen here, for example, as a scan of an original book,
    The book title is The Famine in Russia published by Friends of Soviet Russia and the picture is on page 28. It relates to the Russian Famine of 1921 or 1922 depending on what stock photo site you examine.

    The image on the JVL site appears on Ukrainian and Russian web sites of various types. A search on declares this to be of the Soviet Famine of 1946 – 1947, and often titles it “a hungry group”. It is depicted on many Ukrainian sites as evidence of the so-called holomodor.
    In spite of the Wiki commons attribution, it was taken by Marko Zheliznyak and the originals appear to be held by the Krasnoarmeysk Museum of History and Local Lore. This is a compressed image of a photo of adults and children. No potatoes can be seen.
    This europhile Ukrainian site ( ) gives some further information and the article may be based in part on information from the Press Service of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.
    The relevant part of the article says in English:
    “Around the same time, in the winter of 1933, a photograph was taken of children from Udachny picking frozen potatoes on a collective farm field. Marko Mykytovych (Mykytovych is probably a patronymic and this is the same person.) signed it in Ukrainian:” Achievements of collectivization … “. Any further information following the dots is not revealed.
    These photos appear on all kinds of Ukrainian Holomodor sites but in this web site the photographers signing does not support the image title of ‘..frozen potatoes..’

    Look a little closer!
    Best wishes.

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